The Social Economy

[this is the last of a three post series. Here’s the first and the second.]

My scalp was itching. Just a bit but itchy nonetheless. I lay in bed a few days after John and Adam first worked in my yard trying my hardest to not think what I was thinking. Did I get lice from hugging John? I felt terrible for assuming that, because John’s homeless, he is a likely source for such a creepy-crawly infestation. On the other hand, lice and long hair really do not mix well and the mere thought of having to delouse the house, my daughter’s waist-length locks and my own long hair was enough to provoke a fit of hysterics. Sneaking downstairs, I flicked on the bathroom light and carefully examined my scalp. No bugs appeared to be crawling along my scalp, no bright-shining egg-sacks clung to my hair. But both the fear of lice and the my own self-disgust at thinking so poorly of John and Adam lingered.

A few weeks passed. We had Adam and John do another small job cleaning our gutters and the outside of the house and then shared another meal together. I enjoyed their company and conversation immensely—they were intelligent, wise, informed guys, the sorts of people you want to share a meal and a beer with. They were becoming friends. Giving the an occasional Clif bar or Bumblebee Snack Pack seemed pathetic when what they wanted was work. But we only have so many house projects to do.


“I do my best thinking in the shower,” my husband announced one afternoon, in justification of a particularly long shower. John and Adam had finished up the gutter project a few days before and we’d both been frustrated that two hard-working guys have such a hard time landing occasional work. “We should write up a blurb about John and Adam and put in on the neighborhood association’s Facebook page. If we vouch for them, maybe other people will take a chance on them.”

It was a simple, brilliant idea. Not many people want to hire the beggar they see on the side of the road. But if two respectable neighbors vouch for a couple rough but lovable guys, it is a totally different story. I found John and Adam a few days later to see if they’d mind.

“Whatever, darling.” John looked skeptical. But Adam’s face brightened.

“That would be amazing. You see, John. If they say we’re good and then other people like us on Facebook, it goes out to all their friends, too. We could get a lot of work this way.” Adam explained.

“Alright, but have them go through you, Jess. See, I know you and trust you. I don’t know these others. So, you set it up, even take a cut off the top if you want, and we’ll see how it goes.” John agreed.

A few days later, the post went up. We immediately received a few “thanks, we’ll keep them in mind responses.” Within a week, they had their first job. The work was about 6 miles away, in an upscale neighborhood for a woman who also owned rental properties in our neighborhood. So, feeling a bit like an Uber driver for homeless guys (I’d been giving them lifts now and then, usually when I saw them walking in the direction I was going but also for a couple errands), I arranged to pick them up and take them to the job.

When I met them, in an alley where they’d just spent the weekend demolishing a garage, they looked terrible. The demo work had been grueling, tearing down walls, then more walls, moving large chunks of concrete, hauling away debris. It was 10:30 am and they’d been working since 6am but hadn’t eaten. John speech was so badly slurred I could barely understand him. Adam seemed frantic, too quick and unsettled as he spoke. When they got into the car, John passed out almost straight away, rousing briefly to complain about the pain in his low back. Adam, sitting in the passenger seat, was too tired to even recline the seat for a nap, folding double and sleeping almost as soon as the car was moving. I gave them what food I had with me, regretting that I hadn’t made them a sack lunch.

I felt like a pimp. What these guys needed was a bed, a good meal, a hot shower and then work. But, in their moments of coherence as they passed in and out of consciousness, both said they would be ready when we arrived, they were happy to work, happy to be paid. Adam reiterated the importance of doing this job particularly well. True to their word, when we arrived at the sprawling suburban yard, both men appeared ready to go. As I left, I reminded Adam that if they needed anything, if anything when wrong, if she didn’t pay, that they should text me and I’d be there. And then I left.

My children and I prayed for John and Adam as we drove away but, even in prayer, I was thinking about the inevitable failure of this experiment. They were in no shape to work but, truth be told, if they bailed on the job they’d probably not get another chance. Of course, if they blew the job because of exhaustion, hunger, or the questionable drugs John had taken for his back pain (given him by a friend), their chances at future work were also effectively gone. And, in the highly unlikely event that this job went well, eventually they would mess up.

I’ve learned from my own secret thoughts about John and Adam that, because they are homeless, people will inevitably be less forgiving of their failures—if they don’t to show up, show up late, work slower or less diligently than anticipated, people’s stereotypes of lazy, drunken, strung-out, unreliable homeless men will be reinforced. We grudgingly forgive the plumber who doesn’t show up and then calls four hours late to reschedule for the next day but we don’t forgive homeless guys who show up late.

Later that night, I received an email requesting that Adam and John return again for an additional four hours of work. Somehow, in their exhaustion and hunger, they had managed to work hard and secure another job. With great delight, I asked that this employer reply to our original post and share her own experiences with John and Adam on the neighborhood page, increasing their creditability and reminding people of their availability. This is how the social economy works and how it can work to help people outside traditional job networks. But so far, she hasn’t posted anything about them.

This, dear reader, is where the story ends. Or, more properly, where the story has yet to be written…

Jessica Hughes


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